Welcome to "Eberron Under the Glass," a column that takes a look at how to handle staple themes of D&D adventure in an Eberron campaign. Whether the characters must search for a lost artifact, unearth lore in an old tome, or deal with a goblin uprising, Eberron campaigns do things a little differently. This series helps Eberron players and DMs get the right feel in the setting.
This article looks at cursed items in the Eberron setting.
Why and How Is It Cursed?
A standard campaign assumes that cursed items come from one of three sources: flaws in the crafting process that went unnoticed and that generated an undesirable result, entropy and chaos corrupting an existing magic item, or deliberate creation by evil or insane spellcasters. From those three origins we have many different kinds of cursed items. For instance, you can find ones that fool the user into thinking it is working, to those that work only occasionally, to those that have a radically different function. In Eberron campaigns we can add specific details to all three types of origins (and a fourth not mentioned in the Dungeon Master's Guide).
Curse Origins in Eberron
Flaws in the Process: One of the things that makes the Eberron setting different is that creating magic items is an industry involving many crafters rather than an isolated process by a handful of independent spellcasters. More people are making magic items in Eberron than in a standard campaign, and that means more chances to make a mistake.
An interesting adventure hook can involve tracking a source of cursed items to a particular artisan, finding that he ran out of a key component and used an inferior one with unknown side effects, and is now producing far more cursed items than another artificer of similar skill. Even worse, he taught his apprentices to use this substitution component and now they produce more cursed items as well. Adventurers in Eberron should know that things are rarely as they seem, and a "grand plot to spread cursed items about Khorvaire" may actually be a simple mistake by a busy craftsman. Then again, maybe the replacement ingredient was suggested and provided by a sinister mysterious person with an agenda. . . .
Fortunately, most of the items produced in large numbers are minor items with little or no ability to cause serious harm to the user -- you might see a potion of cure light wounds that makes the drinker sick for a day or a scroll of blur that actually makes the caster glow brightly. Such cursed items are an inconvenience rather than a serious threat (as compared to some of the deadly cursed items in the Dungeon Master's Guide).
Entropy and Chaos: Eberron is unusual in that it has five major places that can have a strong influence on existing magic, with two of them being physical and another three being planar: Khyber, the Mournland, Kythri, Thelanis, and Xoriat. Magic items created in these areas or items that have been in these areas for long enough (or even under the right circumstances in coterminous areas) may change due to this, and they can acquire cursed traits as a result. Khyber often taints the function of items with evil requirements or may stop working in good-aligned areas. The Mournland corrupts healing items so the user thinks the items are working when they're not, and the items may have random effects or magical backlashes each time they're used. Kythri makes cursed items that function intermittently or have a different or opposite effect than the one intended. Thelanis makes cursed items that delude the user, have drawbacks, or have shorter or longer effects than normal. Xoriat makes items that function intermittently, have different or opposite effects, or acquire strange or unpleasant drawbacks and requirements.
Deliberate Creation: In a standard campaign, magic is rare enough that creating a cursed item is not worth it; if you want to hurt an enemy, you can assassinate them more cheaply, and if you want to spread chaos, you can choose to make an item that works only for you and your allies rather than one that hurts everyone who uses it. Therefore in a standard campaign, those who intentionally create cursed items are probably very evil or insane. In Eberron, the increased availability of magic makes the likelihood of curse-sabotage much more likely, even among normal schemers.
Example: Two nobles are feuding. The first pays an artificer to make a cursed sword (the 8,315 gp cost for a +2 longsword isn't that significant to a member of a noble family, and in Eberron most small cities have the means of creating minor magic weapons so the noble has access to this strategy). He arranges for a third party to give it to the second noble as a gift, and then the first noble challenges his rival to a duel. The first noble wins and to everyone it appears that there was no foul play. The cursed sword outlives both nobles, but still becomes as heavy as lead when facing a member of the first noble's family.
Eberron also has two significant forces intent on spreading chaos through the world. The first group is the Lords of Dust, who are powerful and evil beings who often act just to cause chaos for its own sake. These beings have the time and resources to create cursed items, and they find it entertaining to watch mortals fall prey to horrible curses as the items are passed from person to person. The traditional "monkey's paw" of twisted wishes is the exact sort of item they love to make.
The second force is the cult of the Traveler. He is said to wander the world spreading chaos (though, like all of Eberron's gods, he is not actually present in the world), and his mysterious followers often take this mantle upon themselves, making cursed items and passing them off as normal. As the saying goes, "Beware the gifts of the Traveler." A doppelganger or changeling artificer can make a living creating secretly cursed items for a year, then move to another city with another identity when those curses start to manifest.
Character Actions: Some cursed items arise because of the way they are used. A suit of armor sprayed with gore from a wounded daelkyr may develop a thirst for the blood of its wearer. A holy avenger used to kill a just priest is forever tainted and functions only on holy ground or during a conjunction with Syrania. A staff of power used to kill a powerful lich is altered by a backlash of magical energy and slowly drains away its user's life force every time it is activated. In Eberron, things don't always end well, and achieving victory at the cost of damage to a favorite item reflects that theme.
Cursed items don't have to be random. They can be the root of an adventure or the foil to its solution. They may be valuable items with an annoying or unexpected drawback. They may have considerable historical impact. They may be the recurring villain in an ongoing campaign. In other words, most cursed items have a story; the question is how can that story influence your Eberron campaign?
About the Author
Sean K Reynolds lives in Encinitas, California, and recently left his job at a video game company. His D&D credits include the Monster Manual, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and Savage Species. He'd like to thank Keith Baker for his advice on this article. You can find more game material at Sean's website.